Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alma 56: Armies of Helaman

Helaman makes an appearance again, writing a letter to Moroni to inform him of all the cool stuff he's been doing with the Stripling Warriors.

Talk About Snail Mail
Moroni receives Helaman's epistle at the beginning of the thirtieth year of the reign of the judges. The story Helaman tells him begins in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of the judges and continues for another year or two.  This means that, at best, Moroni is learning of events two years after they took place.  

No wonder the Nephites are struggling in their war with the Lamanites.  Captain Moroni is supposed to be in charge of all the Nephite armies and his information is two years out of date.  Perhaps the Nephites' Tapir Express still hadn't ironed out all the kinks.

Pesky Punctuation
As Helaman's two thousand Stripling Warriors brace for their very first taste of combat, he marvels at their bravery.  He learns that their mothers taught them that God would deliver them so long as they put their unwavering faith in him.  This story is often cited in Sacrament Meeting talks on Mother's Day because there aren't a lot of female role models in the Book of Mormon.  Here's what Helaman relates in verse 48:
And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.
It's interesting to me that, based on the way this sentence is punctuated, the Stripling Warriors don't actually profess to have a testimony of this principle themselves.  It could have been written as "We do not doubt; our mothers knew it" or "We do not doubt because our mothers knew it."  That would point to a parent's testimony bolstering a child's.  But instead it's simply presented as "We do not doubt our mothers knew it."  Which basically means that they knew their mothers had faith.  It doesn't mean they shared the faith themselves.

I mean, I don't doubt that my mother knows that there are blessings that come from paying tithing.  I don't doubt that for a second.  But I do doubt the principle that she believes in.  Just because mom "knows" something doesn't mean that her "knowledge" is accurate.

Slippery Perspective
Helaman's letter is told almost entirely in first person perspective.  He refers to himself as "I" and his army as "we" all the way up to an abrupt change in verse 52:
And it came to pass that the Lamanites took courage, and began to pursue them; and thus were the Lamanites pursuing them with great vigor when Helaman came upon their rear with his two thousand, and began to slay them exceedingly, insomuch that the whole army of the Lamanites halted and turned upon Helaman.
"Helaman."  "He."  "Helaman."
I bet Brennan would have a thing or two to say about the anthropological evidence for these stories.
Why does Helaman suddenly forget that the tale he's telling was experienced directly by him?  It switches back to first person by verse 54, but you have to wonder why Moroni didn't think it was weird that Helaman referred to himself in the third person a few times in the middle of the letter.

Did Joseph Smith make a mistake in the dictation of the Book of Mormon?  Did he get so caught up in the depiction of battle that he forgot to keep his perspective consistent?  It does seem in keeping with his first-novel-rookie-mistake thing.

A Little Over-the-Top
Helaman winds up throwing his two thousand green, untested troops into battle to save the tired forces of Antipus from the Lamanites and miraculously, he emerges victorious.  Even more miraculously, none of his warriors are killed.  

It's not the worst example in the Book of Mormon of an event miraculous to the point of absurdity (Lamoni and his strangely contagious fainting disease is another contender), but it's up there.  Two thousand kids who've never been to war before go up against a hardened Lamanite army and win...without losing a single life?  I get that this is supposed to be the power of God at work, but it's just a little too much to stomach for me.  It's miraculous enough without the casualty report, but Joseph had to take it one step further so that it crosses from astounding to ridiculous.

The poor guy just couldn't resist a story embellishment, whether it was a good idea or not.  Just wait until we get to Shiz.

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